There was no magical run to the state final this year for the Princeton High boys soccer team.
The Little Tigers’ season came to an end with a 3-0 loss to West Windsor-Plainsboro North in the opening round of the Central Jersey Group IV state tournament on Monday night. Princeton, which won the CJ IV title last year and reached the state final, where it fell to Kearny, finished the season with an 8-6-3 record.
“It was a season unlike any of the other 21 I’ve coached,” Princeton coach Wayne Sutcliffe said after the loss. “Through injuries and other challenges and then add into that we had a young team. You add all that to a team that lost 15 seniors and 10 starters from 2017 and it was a lot to deal with.
“Of the guys that we brought back, three of them saw significant minutes in their junior and sophomore years.”
Princeton had a relatively young roster this past season. The Little Tigers played a number of sophomores and even some freshmen as the season progressed.
“We had between five to seven sophomores on the field at one time throughout the game and it was a matter of trying to adapt and get better and understand the challenges that you have to face at this level,” Sutcliffe said. “So there was a lot of growth.”
Princeton has had to push the reset button after losing a large group of seniors in the past. But this year’s team faced the largest challenge in Sutcliffe’s long tenure as head coach.
“There have been years where we’ve dropped or lost a lot of quality through graduation, but never this amount,” Sutcliffe said. “And we had a multitude of injuries. We had three concussions, two of which were season ending. And a multitude of other nagging injuries that played a role in making it even more challenging.”
Princeton will return its top two goal scorers next year in Nick Petruso and Ian Pompliano. The Little Tigers will also have that large sophomore group with added experience under its belt when next season opens.
“We like our pool at this point,” Sutcliffe said. “We like our reserve team and our younger players. It’s just a little unprecedented this season with what we had to face.”
Princeton, which was the No. 13 seed in CJ IV, played the fourth-seeded Knights to a scoreless tie through the first 62 minutes. But North scored three times in the final 18 minutes to win and advance to the sectional quarterfinals against fifth-seeded New Brunswick.
“I thought when Josh (Nieman) got free at the near post there maybe midway through the second half, if he could have found the frame that’s all we might have needed in a game like this,” Sutcliffe said. “Credit to North. They have a lot of quality and they played well. They had a great regular campaign and they played well.”
Princeton came up short this time around. But if past history is any indication, the growth the team showed this year will lead to success on the field in 2019.